Summary: Part I, pages 14-39

Coates realizes fear has been present his whole life, and looking back, he recognizes that all the displays of power in his Black community were born out of fear: the dramatic clothing of the gangs in his neighborhood, the loud music, the loud women, and the hard and brutal stares. They are all attempts to assert control. He also sees fear in his family, especially in his father, who beats him with a belt. Coates tells a story about his mother and grandmother. His mother let a man in the house who claimed to be his grandmother’s boyfriend, and when his grandmother got home, she made the man leave and then beat his mother harshly. It was an effort to remind Coates’ mother how easily she could lose her body. His own father beats Coates when he is a child and later claims either he can beat his son, or the police can.

This parental violence comes from both fear and love, but children take that same violence to the streets. Coates speaks of his youth in West Baltimore as being “naked.” His body is constantly vulnerable. An older boy pulls a gun on him for no reason. The boy doesn’t shoot, but Coates suddenly understands just how easily his body can be taken from him and begins to understand the city’s frequent murders. Contrary to his daily experience, Coates sees a different world on TV. There, white boys don’t constantly fear for their bodies, and life seems to consist of suburbs, cookouts, and football cards. He recognizes even as a child that his life is a world away from the lives on TV and that there is an insurmountable difference between Black fear and white freedom, though he doesn’t know why this is the case. He wants to escape the fear of his world.

Coates resents the school system because it is just a new way to control the body. Being a good student means keeping one’s head down, working quietly, and walking in straight lines. The schools praise the nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement, but, to Coates, the Black protestors just seem like they love getting hurt. It doesn’t make sense to him to put these protestors on a pedestal when the same behavior in the streets will get one killed. He sees the streets and school as “two arms of the same beast.” If you don’t do well in the streets, you get hurt, and if you don’t do well in school, they send you back to the streets, where you get hurt. Coates warns that intentions do not matter because good intentions allow people to shirk responsibility for their actions.

Coates does not have religion to take solace in or help him answer questions, so he turns to writing and books, of which his father has many. He is drawn to Malcom X because Malcolm X is straightforward, honest about his emotions, and wholly concerned with protecting the Black body. He has no interest in fake morality or meekness. Coates relates to Malcolm X because he too was almost killed on the streets and clashed with the school system. Coates admires that Malcolm X “found himself” by reading in prison, and when he got out, he spoke and acted like someone in control of his own body. Coates finds hope that he can feel this freedom through study and exploration.  

Analysis: Part I, pages 14-39

Coates’ portrait of growing up on the streets explains the cyclical fear which filled his childhood, and this is evident in his father saying: “Either I beat him, or the police.” His father knows that the police have regularly used the authority of the law to beat or kill Black men, and he views it as a better alternative for him to do the beating instead of the police. Coates has already referenced several cases of police violence for Samori. Coates says that using the authority of the law to harm Black bodies comes from the tradition of slavery. Even though Black people are legally free, the reality is that it is permissible to physically put them in their place without repercussion, especially when a police officer is involved. Coates’ father knows that it would take very little for Coates to be seriously harmed by police. A wrong movement, wrong word, or just being near the wrong address at the wrong time could cost him his life. So his father, reacting out of fear and love, pelts Coates to physically show him how easy it is to lose the security of one’s body. He wants to beat discipline into him because he is scared of losing him.

This fear seeps into the streets, too. Young people’s parents beat them, so they are afraid of their parents as well as afraid of the police, and the kids themselves are violent with each other. Learning the culture of the streets is a daily effort to avoid violence and secure Coates’ own body. The body language, phrases, movements, and gang relationships that Coates must memorize leave so little room for error that they practically guarantee violence and crime. The gangs in his neighborhood dress in clothes that suggest authority and fight on the streets according to complex codes and bylaws. Their baggy clothes, puffy jackets, and chains are meant to assert control so nobody can touch them. The same is true for loud music and loud, aggressive women. Coates can now see through these actions and knows that trying to appear powerful is just a shield from the fear of the violence against their past generations.

Coates says that school is part of the same beast as the streets. Society teaches Coates that school is a place where you can avoid jail. Coates struggles with school, which seems ironic because he is clearly a very curious child. But the schools are not concerned with the curiosities of Black boys and girls. Being a good student truly means letting the school have more control over the body. In contrast white schools don’t say “this will keep you out of jail,” but instead “this will get you into college.” In white schools, education is viewed as a steppingstone to pursue one’s interests and obtain a fulfilling job.

The streets are like a trap that Coates and his community cannot escape. He describes his father beating him both for letting another boy steal from him and for yelling at a teacher. Coates learns that one can have their body assaulted if they are either not violent enough or too violent, and this produces constant fear. The schools have no answer as to how the knowledge they teach that seems completely irrelevant to Coates’ daily life could make a difference for a Black boy or girl.